The discussions that the overseers and pastoral team have been having this year are heavy -- not in a hopeless sense, but in a sober sense. We are full of faith, but because of that, we are doing the uncomfortable work of challenging assumptions. And for that reason we have called the church to prayer.
As pastor, I believe the course we've been on as a church will not accomplish what we had hoped it would.
Too much has changed in the world. The things that used to "work" are not as effective as they once were. And this pandemic has brought it to light.
And when I talk about "the course we've been on," I'm not talking about little decisions, like what songs we sing, or whether we have two worship services, or things like that. I'm talking about the big course we're on, like overall strategy.
And honestly, the "course" we're on is not much different than almost every other American church that has a heart to see people come to faith.
Often called the "attractional" model, it has been useful for several decades at attracting unbelieving people to a presentation of the gospel, and inviting them into fellowship where they can grow in their faith and be supported. This model got everyone's attention in the 1980s and 90s as a natural evolution of the Church Growth Movement of the 1960s (which itself was an attempt to reverse a sudden loss in church growth rate for the first time in two centuries, and to capitalize on the popularity of the crusades of the 1950s).
And so we all learned to measure our effectiveness by worship attendance, and engagement in programs through which we could share common experiences and fellowship, volunteering our time and energy to help make it all happen. Underlying this was the belief that the best thing we could do as a church was to do church in a way that attracted people.
Usually we would frame that as attracting unbelieving people, but the attractional model doesn't really know the difference between believer and unbeliever. We focused on doing things people liked, and ended up competing with everything people liked -- including the stuff other churches were offering that people liked.
As a result, most Christians have learned to choose a church by what it offers, to participate as long as we like it, and to leave when we find a church that offers things we like better.
And so there's been a migration of believers to large churches with big programs. And if we measure it by attendance, and even by people making faith decisions, this has worked in huge ways.
Just in my own ministry experience in the two churches I've served, I've seen probably a thousand people come to faith under this model. It has worked. And it has built thousands of mega churches with big box ministries and impressive facilities to house them all. (And honestly, our own facility that was so impressive in 1980, was built for and supported by the crowds we attracted.)
I believe this model served a purpose.
But when I put my finger to the wind now, I sense that the winds have shifted. And really, it's not even a new sense. The sideways gusts have been hitting for a long time. But my sense is that now it's the old ways that are the sideways gusts. We can still point to examples to say that the model works, but I think the most consistent wind is blowing cross ways to it.
Another way to say that is, for many people the attractional model is ringing hollow. I think it will still have notable gusts where many come to faith, but most consistently the wind is blowing toward smaller fellowships within a larger network.
This pandemic has accelerated the disconnect many were experiencing with how American churches do church. And we are no exception.
That's hard to admit because we like us. We enjoy us. We feel inspired in worship, and encouraged by the word. We have fun doing what we have fun doing.
And if being a church is just about doing stuff we like, that's one thing. But if we are fulfilling a mission, that's another thing. Believing it's the latter, I have been totally reevaluating how we "do church." And throughout the course of this year, I have brought my concerns and thoughts to the overseers for their discernment. And they are laying it out before the church for prayer, to help discern what we will focus on as a church in the future.
In September the overseers decided that, in lieu of their monthly business meeting, they would call the church to prayer twice a month for October, November, and December. In fact, we are suspending our congregational annual meeting until January so that we can follow through on these prayer meetings before doing business.
The goal of these prayer meetings is for the core group of SCC to help discern what God is calling us to next year.
Tonight is our fourth of these six special prayer meetings. If you consider yourself part of the core group (meaning, if you want to be) come to the auditorium or be online at 7pm. It will be an hour of talking to God, guided in a broad sense, but contemplative in the personal sense.
In the first two meetings we spent time focusing our prayers on four questions:
At the third meeting we spent time finishing these prayer starters:
Tonight, we will spend time giving thanks to God.
We'll thank him for the many blessings we've seen. The people who have responded to the gospel in our midst. The people who have come to faith. We'll thank God for those who finished their race well. We'll thank God for those who have supported this church in so many ways over the years. We'll thank God for those who have spent time as part of our fellowship and the blessings we exchanged with them. We'll thank God for the opportunity to even consider our future. We'll discern the many ways God has blessed us already, and give him thanks for it.
Then we'll thank God for things that aren't always comfortable to thank him for.
This year has been difficult. But, like I said yesterday, God uses trials for our good. This is true for each of us individually, and for us as a church. The hardships of this year have given us opportunity to pause and consider what we do and why we do it. So tonight we'll lean into that too.
We'll thank him for the disappointments, the losses, the struggles, the discomforts, and even the uncertainty many of us have. With a deliberate gratitude we will pray blessing on those who have disappointed us. Even those who have wronged us. And we'll pray for opportunity to bless anyone we have disappointed or wronged. We'll thank God for a hard year.
Then we'll spend time with the questions from the first three prayer meetings.
This is our call to discern the future by discerning the past. We need your help in this. God is listening for our prayers.
Let's pray tonight at 7pm, in the auditorium, or online.
Pastor of Sarasota Community Church since 2009.